A chat with Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy and director Richard Linklater (“Before Midnight”)

It’s not often that a romantic movie sparks a sequel, and even rarer when the sequels are set nine years apart. The relationship between actors Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy and director Richard Linklater is just as unique as the characters Hawke and Delpy portray in their latest film, “Before Midnight.” The dialogue-heavy film focuses on the struggles of married life and the sacrifices that must be made. Recently, the trio sat down to discuss the collaborative effort involved and how they’ve managed to stay on the same creative page over the last 18 years.

BULLZ-EYE: The couple deals with the problem of moving to another country to be with their partner. Have any of you faced that kind of decision?

ETHAN HAWKE: Part of the idea of the movie is that it’s very easy to look at a romantic relationship when there’s an obvious bad guy. One person’s an alcoholic or one person is abusive, but what if you were to take two well-meaning people who actually love each other and want the best for each other? It’s still hard. We paint that portrait. I think anyone who’s been in a long term relationship, whether it feels as dramatic as Chicago and Paris, it’s whether or not your lives are still growing on the same road or does one need to change the road to keep growing.

JULIE DELPY: That’s what it’s about. There’s no bad guy, in particular. They still have to make compromises and they all feel like who’s making the most compromises and what compromise might jeopardize their relationship and their love. It’s all about finding the right road, and the road is this small not for it to fall apart. In a long term relationship, you always have to make choices. Actually, their relationship starts with a choice that Jesse makes, which is to follow his heart, but that comes with consequences. The film starts with the consequences of that choice. We find out that there’s a situation again where they have to make a choice. Jesse’s putting in her face that he might want to move back to the States, but it might jeopardize their entire life, so the life of a relationship.

RICHARD LINKLATER: That’s appropriate for where they find themselves in life. In the first movie, for instance, they’re unattached. You see how easily they get off a train and go home a day later and do whatever. You have that looseness. They both actually moved around a lot over the years, but when they were single and unattached. Now, you see how difficult that is to maneuver through life with the exact same person and stay on the same track. It’s tough.

ETHAN HAWKE: We will also take questions about your personal relationships and advise you. (laughs)

BE: What are the challenges of performing the long dialogues in the movie, especially the one in the car with the kids?

JULIE DELPY: Just mentioning that scene gives me a flashback of anxiety. (laughs) My heart is already beating slightly faster.

RICHARD LINKLATER: The children are the unsung heroes of that scene, because they’re not asleep, they’re acting. Two little girls and I have twins roughly that age, and there’s no way. In the middle of that take, how did they not open their eyes and look at the camera. There’s so many things that could’ve gone wrong.

JULIE DELPY: There’s the girls. There’s the car driving, there’s the road. It’s like lights everywhere, there are lines…

ETHAN HAWKE: It’s hot.

JULIE DELPY: It was hot and noisy with the sound. On top of that, we do have to act those 10 or 14 minutes. Nothing in those scenes are improvised. Everything is scripted. There just isn’t any other way. Since it is long takes, if you want to have this kind of arc development in a scene with this exact thing happening there and this thing happening there, you can’t add one line. It’s such a challenge. It just hurts my head thinking about it. (laughs)

RICHARD LINKLATER: I know what these guys can do as performers. We’ve worked together a lot over the years. I wouldn’t try that with most actors, but we’ve done it. I know they can do it. It means a lot of hard work, but I know we can get there. It was very important at the very beginning of the film for people who feel like they know Jesse and Celine to some degree be dropped in with them with no editing, to get the feeling that they were just hanging out with them. I think we’re just dropped into their reality and everything they’re talking about. That was just the vibe that the film needed right off the bat.

JULIE DELPY: I think what Richard does in that scene, that I very much respect, is to push us to get to that one take. He does that in his films. These long, uncut scenes, to me, is by not using the typical tricks of filmmaking, which is “cut, medium shot, closeup, etc.” — you break clean of the typical language of typical filmmaking. In a way, you feel like you’re witnessing something that is not a film. It makes you feel very real. It’s the goal that he wants to achieve, that I respect and very much admire. I don’t mean to kiss his ass. I’d work with him anytime. (laughs)

RICHARD LINKLATER: Oh, I kiss her ass…constantly. (laughs)

JULIE DELPY: It’s a very rare thing. It’s hard work, but it’s a wonderful thing to do as actors.

BE: The past films, including this one, makes you wonder what happens to Jesse and Celine. Do you guys ever give that any thought to what they might be doing?

ETHAN HAWKE: I remember being at a deli and trying to shop and doing some things, having a bunch of kids with me and trying to talk on the phone and having this thought like, “I wonder if this ever happens to Jesse.” Where nothing like that happened in the script, over the period of years, you collect a few of those moments. There’s a certain tone and mood and theme to “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset.” Sometimes life pops up and there is that tone and that mood and it logs in there.

JULIE DELPY: We have to think about their backstory every time we start to write one line of the screenplay. You can’t start writing the second screenplay or the third without knowing everything that happened in between. I can’t say Celine lives with me 24/7 or I’d be crazy. There’s a bunch of people in my head. (laughs)

ETHAN HAWKE: She just sits at home watching “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset.” (laughs)

JULIE DELPY: You do let go of them, but when you get back to working on those films, it’s like a tremendous amount of homework of figuring out what happened during those nine years. You can’t even write a line of screenplay without having done that first. We have the luxury of time. I mean, we have nine years between films.

BE: What part of Celine in her forties resonate with you the most?

JULIE DELPY: With Celine, I really wanted to make sure she was a strong woman. She’s looking towards the future. She’s not someone who dwells in the past and she’s a very active person. At times, she can seem vindictive and not going to let someone tell her what to do or how it should be done. She also believes that if they move to Chicago that it will destroy their relationship. It’s not just about the work. She’s really convinced of that. Personally, I think she’s right. To me, it was very important that she’s not the “wife of the writer.” She’s her own person. That’s very important for me to depict that character as so. It’s the same for Richard and Ethan to make sure that she’s not just “the wife.” Otherwise, it’s just out of balance. Then, it’s just a film about a guy with a nice French wife. It was important for those guys, too, to make sure that it was very balanced female-male, that it’s not a macho movie or a feminist movie without meaning. It’s very balanced in that sense… She’s not man-hating.

BE: Where do you think she’ll be in her fifties?

JULIE DELPY: We don’t know yet. (laughs) I actually don’t think about the future. That’s not how we operate.

BE: Will there be a fourth film?

ETHAN HAWKE: We’re so happy to be done with the third. (laughs)

JULIE DELPY: I know. We might not even do a fourth. That could be it.

RICHARD LINKLATER: We didn’t plan on it being a trilogy, so if that’s it, we’re fine with it as it is. It’s impossible for us to know anything until some years go by.

BE: How has the film changed you as artists over 18 years?

ETHAN HAWKE: I’d say I learned how to speak on camera in “Before Sunrise.” As a young actor, you get asked to pose or affect an emotion, but Richard wanted Julie and I to talk and to be present in front of the camera and not act.

JULIE DELPY: I was thinking about that. It’s really hard. You’re rarely asked to do that as actors. Maybe once in a film to have a big monologue telling a story. You might have it once every ten films where it’s dialogue, dialogue, dialogue, but here we have big chunks. You should see the screenplay, and how do you do that without sounding boring? It can sound really boring if you’re not super natural when saying it like we’re really telling the story to someone we care for. That’s the real challenge of the films. That’s been the challenge as actors every time. As writers, we worked on the screenplay of the first film, but it was really about how to talk on camera without being boring. That was the hardest thing. I’ve experienced it on other films and it’s really, really hard.

RICHARD LINKLATER: I don’t know if we’ve evolved that much.

JULIE DELPY: We have. (laughs)

RICHARD LINKLATER: I think the way we worked on this film is very similar to the dynamic between us. We’re a band who is still performing in a very similar manner. We’re the Ramones or something.

ETHAN HAWKE: The lyrics change, but we remain the same.

RICHARD LINKLATER: The way we sat in Vienna 19 years ago almost, the way we push each other, the inner dynamic…

ETHAN HAWKE: We’re a little less impressed with each other.

RICHARD LINKLATER: Yeah. (laughs) We were getting to know each other then, but the result is the same.

BE: Did you ever feel that you went too far in the film, particularly the hotel room scene?

JULIE DELPY: Richard was crying all the time. (laughs)

RICHARD LINKLATER: In the script phase, if we think we’ve gone too far, it’s usually in a spot we should explore. What people think is too far is usually not that far.

JULIE DELPY: For actors, it’s pleasurable to cry, to suffer. It’s a pleasant thing. That’s what we train for. We train to do it. When you see someone on camera crying and being hurt, they’re really enjoying it.

RICHARD LINKLATER: That tells you everything you need to know about the profession.

JULIE DELPY: What’s most painful is the simple things. That’s the hardest thing to find for an actor. Believe it or not, the walk in the village is more draining. Maybe I’m just weird.

RICHARD LINKLATER: There’s a comedic edge to it. Not that Jesse and Celine think it’s funny.

ETHAN HAWKE: What’s fun about it is that it was challenging. We dove into it. We were locked into that room for a long time and you came out with a scene. The whole film had been building to that. We filmed that part in sequence, so for us, yeah, it was challenging, but we were glad to be there. We arrived to a place that it took us nine years to get to.

BE: Being in such a creative relationship, what have you learned about yourself?

ETHAN HAWKE: I learned that I’m not as smart as Julie.

JULIE DELPY: That’s true. (laughs)

RICHARD LINKLATER: We knew that right off the bat.

BE: Has anything surprised you about your relationship?

ETHAN HAWKE: Julie and I auditioned for this little romantic movie “Before Sunrise.” The idea that we would’ve had this lifelong collaboration and that we would’ve poured so much of ourselves into it. That’s the thing that’s the surprise.

JULIE DELPY: It’s very fulfilling.

ETHAN HAWKE: The fact we get to do this film and someone’s interested, that’s the surprise.

JULIE DELPY: What’s a surprise to me is that we get to work on this film and we really work hard on the writing, directing, acting. Not everybody will like this film, but someone will really like it and it’s a strange feeling. We’re not trying to please anybody when we make the films. We’re really just trying to be as true as possible. It’s not a publicity trick.

ETHAN HAWKE: You’re trying to be funny. You’re trying to entertain. You’re trying to be dramatic. This is something else.

JULIE DELPY: Like the last film, especially writing it, you go so deep into certain things in the writing and emotionally. I say we’re having fun doing the end scene, but there’s moving a lot of things within us. It’s not as simple as having fun, it’s very complicated, because we’ve all been through those emotions in a relationship and it’s a fun thing to go through. We just try to be as genuine and as honest as possible. What’s amazing is that people relate. Sometimes, I think, “Oh my god, no one’s going to be interested in this and this and that.” Sometimes, you have doubts. Sometimes, you think people will say, “Oh my god. I want to see happy people.” But in the end, some people can relate. That’s what cinema is about, for people to identify…or dream. Maybe it’s less dream and more identification.

RICHARD LINKLATER: We have some ideal audience in mind, believe it or not. The second film, we felt no one wanted. We made the first film and no one asked if there would be a second film. That wasn’t a logical question. When we were making the second film in Paris, every day we looked at each other and said, “How are we getting to do this? This is amazing.” We’re getting to make this very personal film that no one really cares about except for three people. (laughs) You’re really in a good spot if you can make a film like that. The way that one ended, there has been this kind of buildup of questions over the last nine years like, “Oh is Jesse and Celine together?” We’ve all stubbornly rebelled against that. Once we let that go and put out of our minds that there were three people out there who cared about them, we just kind of dug into ourselves and concentrated on that. But we do have this very small audience in mind when we get to a crossroads and think cinema storytelling narrative language says if this plus this equals an unlikable character, then you just don’t do that. Then, we think that’s just a construct. It’s not really real, it’s a narrative storytelling bubble that some of cinema exists in. We’ll go, “Oh, maybe our audience, whoever that is, might appreciate that we go there on this subject.” We haven’t built an artificial thing that can’t support that. We can support a lot of brutal honesty, we hope, in what we’ve built.

ETHAN HAWKE: The structure of “Before Sunset” or “Midnight” would be thrown out of any decent screenplay class in America. I mean, a 30-minute scene in one room. You can’t do that.

JULIE DELPY: It’s a film within a film.

BE: Did any fan feedback from the first two films influence this one?

RICHARD LINKLATER: We have gotten questions, but I don’t know if they’ve influenced this one.

ETHAN HAWKE: There’s a moment in the hotel where the woman who works in the hotel asks me to sign the two books and talks about how important they are. It’s a slight homage where we’re putting the fans in the movie. There’s something about “Sunrise” and “Sunset” that spoke to people. The people that it reached, it spoke to them. There’s a little homage to that there.

JULIE DELPY: A lot of people will come up to me saying, “I fell in love with my boyfriend watching that film” or, “We reconnected after five years after seeing ‘Sunset’” or, “He decided to call me after seeing the film.” So, we’re responsible for a few children. (laughs)

ETHAN HAWKE: A few marriages, a few children.

JULIE DELPY: I feel like a godmother. (laughs)

BE: How was it doing the dinner table scene, seeing as how it’s one of the few times in the film that you have an extended interaction with other cast members?

RICHARD LINKLATER: We thought that was necessary, for the movie, to see their social selves and how they interact with other people. The previous two films were these bubbles unto themselves, so that was purposefully designed for the movie. The subject of that is romance at different ages and does it endure? It was really fun for us to pull in other people. Dinner scenes are tough. They’re often boring and hard to shoot. Everything about a dinner scene is challenging. It was fun to bring in that really wonderful group of people into our process. Everyone was very unique. One of them I’ve known longer than Julie and Ethan, the woman who’s roughly their age in the couple. She’s a filmmaker and ended up one of our co-producers. She’s a Greek filmmaker and is very acclaimed right now.

BE: I didn’t see the first two films. Do you consciously make an effort to appeal to those who haven’t seen the two previous movies? Do you ever think that new crowds will think Julie is man-hating?

RICHARD LINKLATER: I think they’re thrilled by it, that there’s somebody who can express themselves like that. I think this film is designed to stand on its own. I think it’s a bonus if you’ve seen the first two, but absolutely not necessary. As with the second, we had some flashbacks, because we really thought it needed it. This one sort of answers any questions, we hope, that you might have had coming out of the last film. This was delegated in the writing. It has to feel very not exposition, but feel intertwined in the subject matter. Each one should stand on its own.

BE: What role does the location play in creating the dialogue and story?

RICHARD LINKLATER: it ends up being very impactful to the story. It’s a major character. It’s the third lead character in the movie as it has been for all of them. It comes pretty late in the process for all of us. We really just think about the character and the relationship. The location for this one, in particular, came pretty late. Once we’re there, we did most of our writing in Greece. We visited locations. We met people and the actors we were going to be working with. It infused itself into everything about the movie.

JULIE DELPY: And I would make references to Madea and other things while we were there.

RICHARD LINKLATER: That’s kind of one of the joys of doing this is we really get to know a place. We incorporate all of that. Even the Greek political situation at the moment, we didn’t want to be that film that tells Greece anything about itself. We did capture a moment, a little bit, via Celine’s paranoia about the situation thinking a revolution is imminent. (laughs)

JULIE DELPY: Sorry, it’s not funny. It’s serious. It could be.

BE: What made you originally cast Ethan and Julie in the roles? What made you audition for the roles?

RICHARD LINKLATER: That’s a good question. I guess it’s our origin story for all of us. It was conventional. There was a script and I was going through a casting process. I remember I met Julie very early. She was the second actor that I met on the film in Los Angeles. Ethan, I had seen in a play in New York, Jonathan Marc Sherman’s “Sophostry,” and we talked after. I met a lot of actors and the bar for what I was looking for was so high, because I knew what they would have to do to make this film work. So, I knew I was looking for the two most creative and most inspiring people I could find. I didn’t know how to pull it off. It was about getting two actors who were up for that challenge to making this film work. We had other actors that we were seeing how they looked together. We had other actors that we were mixing and matching, doing scenes and working together.

JULIE DELPY: I auditioned with another guy. You auditioned with another girl. How was it? (laughs)

ETHAN HAWKE: On my darkest days, I think about it. (laughs)

JULIE DELPY: No one’s every asked me that.

ETHAN HAWKE: It’s like it never happened.

JULIE DELPY: Did you like her better?

ETHAN HAWKE: That’s a trick question. There was a day, early in the development of “Before Sunrise,” where Rick told us that we get to choose our character’s names. I’d never done that. It was this long thing — like, what should the character be named? It’s a funny ownership you get to have of your own character. Now, having more experience in film, I can’t believe that Rick asked us to be a part of that. These two young people. It’s such a dangerous thing to do. It’s such a difficult thing to do.

JULIE DELPY: If we had been terrible, it would’ve been such a bad idea. What would you have done?

RICHARD LINKLATER: There were a lot of those. (laughs)

BE: Did you learn anything from Jesse and Celine on how you handle conflict in your own relationships?

ETHAN HAWKE: It’s so nice to have the time to have the right thing to say.

JULIE DELPY: This is the ideal argument. We get to write it for like eight weeks. We get to rehearse it. We get to revisit it.

RICHARD LINKLATER: All those things you wish you could say. It’s very cathartic, actually.

JULIE DELPY: In real life, I don’t think I’m that good. I never come up with the right thing. I scream and I throw things. (laughs) Actually, I don’t argue very much, so it was a real stretch for me to write that scene.

RICHARD LINKLATER: Yeah, Julie’s so non-combative. It was a real stretch for her.

BE: What relationship wisdom do you have that we could take from Jesse and Celine?

JULIE DELPY: Ethan is the specialist.

ETHAN HAWKE: The fun of this is that you’re seeing the warts and all. All that we’ve tried to do is try to put three-dimensional real human beings on screen and put them in a relationship with each other and watch them age 20 years. You can take from that whatever you can. “He was a prick when he said that.” That’s the dream. We don’t have any advice. All we’re doing is trying to play out some reality. The hope is by doing that, someone else can use their wisdom and enjoy it.

JULIE DELPY: We don’t have any advice.

ETHAN HAWKE: Dr. Phil will be here later.

JULIE DELPY: Relationships are so complex. It’s so about who you are. It’s so specific. We explore one kind of relationship with two kinds of people and that’s it. There’s a million different things that are common to…it’s endless. It’s amazing. I think human beings have endless things to tell, because there’s endless complexity to each of us.

ETHAN HAWKE: That’s what’s so cool about the location of Greece. Greece is this place of love stories that have been told for thousands of years.


ETHAN HAWKE: And they always feel new.

JULIE DELPY: Gods having sex with humans.

RICHARD LINKLATER: I think if there’s anything hopeful, it’s when you see a couple working through it. I’ve talked to a lot of people who are older and I think that’s what charged them up about the movie and made them feel good. It’s to see these two people who are still trying. They’re still communicating. They’re still making each other laugh when they can. You see them in the ring together. Often in relationships, one or both have kind of checked out. If you’ve got problems, I’ll deal with it as minimal as I can. You see a split there. So, I think it’s hopeful. It’s a good depiction of two people who care enough that they are actively working through.

JULIE DELPY: I think, for my character, I really wanted to make her a fighter. I felt that so many people in a relationship give up and then they build more resentment than if they were fighting in the moment. They should be fighting it. I think that’s what destroys relationships, actually, is when the woman or man says, “Ok, fine. Let’s do it like that,” and then they are never happy. I think that the end of a relationship is when someone gives up the fight that they really believe is what makes them happy, makes the relationship works, etc. The 20-year-old that’s gasping whenever that comes out doesn’t know yet that’s the secret of making a relationship work, because she doesn’t know yet which is fine. The truth is there are no rules on how to make a relationship work and I don’t know how to do it. (laughs)

BE: Richard, were you afraid of casting Ethan and Julie, who were at the time, two very passionate people?

RICHARD LINKLATER: Yes, but artists enough to put ego aside. We all have egos, but you realize it’s like being on a team. Where do you fit in? What’s your role? What’s going to make the best movie? We’ve always had this wonderful process. It’s hard to define.

JULIE DELPY: It all started in the audition.

RICHARD LINKLATER: It started there. We just clicked. There wasn’t that ego friction that some people have innately and some don’t have. We didn’t have it. We’ve always been willing to bring really strong points of view and a lot of confidence in ourselves to a collaborative effort. It’s worked really friction-free for the most part as far as our process goes. I think that’s why the band’s still together.